21 May 2006

Powerful and hard-hitting

A review on Elmar Klos and Ján Kadár's The Shop on Main Street.

The Shop on Main Street [1965], set during World War 2 Nazi-occupied Slovakia, is about Tono Brtko, a poor, skilled carpenter in a small town, who, though being an Aryan, has his own doubts about the intentions of the occupying Nazi forces. But when his brother-in-law, a Nazi officer, through his influence, appoints Tono as the Aryan Administrator of a button shop belonging to Rozalie Lautmann, an old Jewish lady, he accepts, since it would mean a more comfortable financial position, and since it would shut up his constantly-nagging wife.

Rozalie turns out to be a really old woman, hard of hearing and sight, who doesn’t know anything about the present situation, thanks to the Jewish community, which is shielding her from the news of the tyrannic Nazis. The Jewish community strikes a deal with Tono, wherein he gets paid a regular income every week, if he pretended to be her assistant.

This arrangement works out smoothly for a while, until the Nazis start evacuating the Jews to labor camps. Tono has, by then, developed a good friendship with Rozalie, and the dilemma that he finds himself in, whether he should hide Rozalie or hand her over to the Nazis, makes up the rest of the movie.

What sets this film apart from other World War II movies is that while the focus of most other movies is more upon concentration camps, cold-blooded cruelty and mass murder, The Shop on Main Street is more about an individual’s state of mind when under the most trying of circumstances. Tono’s is a Catch-22 situation: if he hides her, the Nazis would sooner or later find out about her and kill him for being a Jew-lover; and if he turns in Rozalie, he’d have to live the rest of his life with the guilt of being responsible for her death. His dilemma starts off on a low note and gradually crescendoes into a highly volatile situation, where we find Tono wildly oscillating between the two options he has before him. This dilemma, which takes up the last 30 or so minutes of the movie’s total running time of 128 minutes, is the most powerfully portrayed inner conflict I’ve seen on screen.

The movie wouldn’t have made such a big impact on it’s viewers, had it not been for the brilliant performances of the principal characters. Jozef Kroner, who plays Tono, has a very expressive face and equally expressive eyes, and he uses them to great effect, especially during the emotionally intense last part of the movie. Ida Kaminska, in an Oscar-nominated role, is marvelous as the senile, disoriented Rozalie.

Directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, this movie is based on a novel Obchod na korze (also the Slovak title of the movie), written by Ladislav Grosman. The film boasts of some awesome cinematography by Vladimír Novotný, and is shot in very rich black and white. It won many awards, including the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.

© Guru Smaran

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